The most provocative thing about The Assassination of Katie Hopkins is its title. It is actually a reflective show, one that sets out to explore outrage, rather than generate it.
While Chris Bush and Matthew Winkworth’s musical does use Hopkins’ death as a narrative springboard, it does so in the service of a question-raising piece of theatre that, among many subjects, is interested in the line between free speech and hate speech. It examines the place that figures such as the controversial columnist and provocateur occupy in our culture, the influence they have, and the capacity of social media to heighten emotions and divide people.
Bush presents a fairly plausible account of how people would respond to Hopkins’ death: some people grieve, some celebrate. Politicians and journalists hone their responses carefully, as Asian people cross their fingers and hope that the perpetrator turns out to be “some white nutter” and not a bearded brown man.
Though completely fictionalised, the musical presents itself as an exercise in verbatim theatre, a kind of Twitter-literate London Road. Some lyrics employ repetition to achieve this effect and video – YouTube, rolling news footage – is part of the fabric of the production. The cast members are forever filming each other or themselves.
Hopkins is not made a monster; the opposite, in fact. There’s a real attempt to explore both her appeal and the level of performance involved in being Katie Hopkins. This is echoed in a plot strand in which charity worker Kayleigh (Bethzienna Williams) morphs into a figure of controversy for championing Katie.
Bush is clearly fascinated with – and has a real understanding of – the role the internet plays in modern politics and the #MeToo movement. Not only is young lawyer Shayma (Maimuna Memon) dealing with the consequences of having reported a colleague for sexual harassment, she also ends up becoming a viral sensation after footage of her retaliating after being racially abused on public transport is uploaded to YouTube. There’s also a subplot about the death of 12 immigrant fruit-pickers, there to illustrate the value the public places on certain lives over others, that – perhaps aptly – gets a little lost.
Winkworth’s music employs the plinks and bleeps of people’s mobile devices to create the texture and relentlessness of online interaction, but James Grieve’s production, with its cast of eight, can’t quite capture the cacophony of the internet. The cast is great, though, nimbly shifting between characters.
Lucy Osborne’s set, consisting of two large sliding screens composed of little iPhone-size panels that light up, is also ingenious.
There are so many different things going on in the show, too many in the end, but you can’t fault its ambitions. What is abundantly clear is that Bush and Winkworth are genuinely exciting voices in musical theatre who can use the form to spark debate and encourage nuance of thought.